Chapter 9 Persia, Byzantium and the Rus

Section 4 Religious Rivalries and Nomadic Invasions  

There are two themes which run throughout discussions of Sasanid, Byzantine, or early Russian history. One centers on the efforts of those empires to promote an official state religion in close association with a monarchical government. The other involves their attempts to resist the attacks of “barbarian” invaders. This was clearly an age of religious rivalries and nomadic invasions, and both these phenomena deserve closer attention.

Religious Rivalries

From the very beginning, both the Byzantine and Sasanid rulers used religion—distinctive forms of Christianity and Zoroastrianism respectively—to legitimize their authority, and they often pursued policies aimed at imposing a high degree of religious uniformity among their subjects. This may be attributed at least in part to their desire to achieve the degree of unity and social order necessary for survival in a precarious world. Unfortunately, the promotion of one official religion also implied that religious non-conformists could be viewed as political subversives or potential traitors. This inevitably resulted in intense religious rivalries, a high degree of religious intolerance, and on occasion outright religious persecution.

Religion in the Byzantine Empire

At first, the Byzantine emperors simply removed restrictions from Christians and treated Christianity as a favored religion among several that could be practiced in the Byzantine Empire. During the reign of Theodosius I (379-395), however, the policy definitely became one of promoting an official version of Christianity and discouraging or punishing those who did not accept it. As Justinian, following the decree of Theodosius, put it in his law code, such nonconformists were “demented and insane” and could be treated accordingly. Three main groups within the empire were particular targets of suspicion: Christian heretics, Jews, and pagans.

            In the case of Christians, the Byzantines used the early church councils to define what it was permissible to believe. Proponents of non-orthodox doctrines were labeled heretics and expelled from the church. Justinian held that their meeting places should not be called churches and that they would be punished by divine vengeance and imperial retribution. Adherents to some heresies, such as Paulicians and Bogomils, could be (and sometimes were) put to death.

            In one sense, the Byzantine effort to impose religious conformity among its Christian subjects succeeded. The church councils defined what constituted orthodox belief and there was little doctrinal dispute within the Greek Church thereafter. However, the Byzantines paid a high price for this. On the one hand, they alienated many of their Christian subjects such as those in Egypt and Syria who followed the teachings condemned at the councils, and this contributed to the loss of those provinces. On the other hand, their efforts to define doctrine also precipitated a conflict with the churches in the western provinces of the empire, especially those that looked for guidance to the bishop of Rome, the Pope. Eventually, the growing conflict over doctrine and lines of spiritual authority between the Byzantine church and the Papacy would result in a bitter schism between the Latin and Greek churches.

Jews. Jews would also have been among those judged “demented and insane” by Justinian because of their obstinate refusal to accept Christianity. There was one major period of actual persecution of Jews that took place in the context of the struggle with the Sasanids. Dhu Nuwas, the pro-Persian king of Yemen, converted to Judaism and cut off trade with the Byzantines. In response, there were attacks on Yemen by the Christian king of Abyssinia in 517 and 519. In 523, Dhu Nuwas massacred the Christians at Najran, allegedly in retaliation for the persecution of Jews in Byzantium. The Emperor Justin I (518-27) backed the King of Abyssinia and encouraged further attacks on Yemen, which resulted in its temporary conquest by the Abyssinians. There was then a counterattack and occupation by the Persians.

            The religious dimension of this geopolitical struggle extended into Byzantium itself. There was a major Jewish revolt in 555, when the empire was at war with the Sasanids, and Jews enthusiastically collaborated with the Persians during their occupation of Syria and Palestine (611-622), burning churches, robbing monasteries, and reportedly slaughtering as many as 60,000 Christians. After Heraclius defeated the Persians (622-628) and pushed them out of Byzantine territory, there were retaliatory massacres of Jews. Some synagogues were destroyed, the reading of the Old Testament in Hebrew was forbidden, Jews were banned from Jerusalem, and Heraclius even planned to force them to be baptized. However, the Arab conquests removed much of the Jewish population from Byzantine control, and other Jews simply fled the empire. Thereafter, as before, Jews were generally tolerated but regarded as inferior or second-class citizens and subjected to a wide range of discriminatory practices.

Pagans. Paganism was gradually eliminated from the Byzantine Empire. In 392, Theodosius issued an edict prohibiting the performance of pagan religious rituals throughout the empire and prescribing harsh penalties for engaging in them. Temples were closed, pagan shrines dismantled or looted, and activities such as the Olympic games terminated. The final blow to paganism came in 592 when Justinian ordered the school of philosophy in Athens, the last bastion of paganism, to be closed and its property confiscated. Some of the pagan intellectuals emigrated to Persia where they were welcomed by Khusrau Anushirvan. Any pagans who remained simply lived as quietly and inconspicuously as possible.

            As for pagans outside the Byzantine Empire, church leaders, such as the Patriarch Photius, quickly realized that there were opportunities for converting them. One consequence of Photius’ policy was the sending of two brothers, Methodius and Constantine (later known as Cyril) as missionaries to the Slavs. They wanted to preach to potential converts in their local language and to provide religious texts and a translation of the Bible in the vernacular languages. This led them to develop new scripts which came to be used for writing Slavic languages, and their mission had great success. The conversion of the Bulgarians and Russians are two significant examples of the Byzantine success at spreading Christianity throughout Eastern Europe.


Religious Rivalries in Sasanid Persia

It is likely that the ancestors of the Sasanid kings were high priests at the temple of the Zoroastrian goddess of water, Anahita, near Persepolis, and the Sasanid rulers continued to act as both priest and king. By following the principle that “religion is the foundation of kingship and kingship is the protector of religion,” the Sasanids, like the Byzantines, had to deal with the problem of religious nonconformity among their subjects.

            The worst period of general persecution probably occurred during the first decades of the new dynasty and especially during the long tenure of the chief priest Kartir. He not only used his inscriptions to tell of how he had promoted the official religion, he boasted how he had destroyed rival Zoroastrian shrines and temples and how he had “beaten” Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and other “heretics.” The kings were rarely as zealous as Kartir was, and they vacillated in practice between periods of intense persecution and relative tolerance. There were even times when the rulers, perhaps fearful of the power acquired by the Zoroastrian clergy, actually favored the minority religions.

Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians were the religious minorities that came under the closest scrutiny since adherents of other religions were either few in number or far removed from the core provinces of the Sasanid Empire. Jewish religious leaders quickly made it clear to the Sasanids that they were loyal to the Persian government, would pay their taxes, and would respect Persian law. After that, Jewish-Sasanid relations were quite cordial, and there were only a few periods of intolerance and persecution. One, the motivation for which is unclear, was in the middle of the fifth century; the last and most serious came after some Jews made the mistake of siding with Bahram Chubin in his revolt against Khusrau Anushirvan.

            The situation for Christians was similar to that of Jews until the Byzantines made Christianity the official religion of their empire and claimed the right to protect Christians outside their own borders. This immediately raised the question of whether the Persian Christians, who were particularly numerous in the strategically important western provinces of the Sasanid Empire, might be potential traitors who would act as a “fifth column” to assist the Byzantines. Shahpur II (309-379) severely persecuted Christians for almost forty years, urged on by Zoroastrian clergy who denounced Christians for not worshipping the sun and fire, for polluting water, for valuing chastity and celibacy, and for refusing to fight on behalf of the king. In this great persecution, Shahpur came close to exterminating Christianity in his empire completely.

            Later rulers moderated this harsh policy, sometimes in the context of trying to improve relations with the Byzantines. They also came to realize that many Christians belonged to the Monophysite or Nestorian branches of Christianity that the Byzantines had begun to denounce as heretical. There was little reason to suspect these subjects of being sympathetic to Byzantium, and such Christians were often given welcome places of refuge in Persian territory.

Manichaeism. As an alternative to persecution or forced conversion, some Sasanid rulers seem to have been intrigued by the possibility of creating a new religion based on a blending of the various existing religions and philosophies. When Shahpur I ordered the compilation of the text of the Avesta, for example, he is supposed to have also encouraged the acquisition of religious, philosophical and scientific works from India and Byzantium to see if they could all be merged into a uniform system.

            Perhaps the most interesting and significant expression of this tendency can be seen in the rise of the Manichaean religion. Its founder, Mani (216-277) claimed to have learned a new religion of light and truth from a heavenly being or “spiritual twin.” He traveled throughout the Persian Empire teaching this religion and sent out missionaries to more distant lands. Shahpur I supported Mani, either to use him against the Zoroastrian clergy or in the hope of achieving greater religious unity among his subjects and spreading his influence through Manichaeism to an even larger area. Under pressure from the Zoroastrian clergy, and perhaps worried that Mani, who was descended from one of the noble Parthian families, might have political ambitions, Bahram I arrested Mani and executed him.

            Mani saw himself as a religious messenger in the tradition of Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus who would complete their work and found a new universal religion. His doctrines combined, apparently quite deliberately, aspects of Greek science and philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Gnosticism. As Manichaeism spread, it continued to incorporate elements of other religions. This makes Manichaeism a difficult religion to describe adequately.

            Mani emphasized the idea of a cosmic conflict between the uncreated and eternal divine principles of Good/Light and Evil/Darkness, from each of which emanated subordinate creatures. The struggle would culminate in the collapse of the universe, the triumph of Light, and the imprisonment of Darkness. To this largely Zoroastrian concept, Mani added ideas such as reincarnation and the role of Buddha and Jesus as special agents of the Light. Human beings combine aspects of the Light, the soul, which is good and the Darkness, the material body, which is evil.

            Through the acquisition of the religious wisdom imparted by teachers such as Jesus and Mani, souls can be reincarnated in ever more perfect forms until finally reaching the Paradise of Light. Manichaeans were thus divided between the Hearers, or ordinary believers, and the Elect, or religious teachers whom the Hearers supported and who would be reincarnated in Paradise. In addition to providing religious instruction, the Elect also wore special white garments and followed stricter religious rules of fasting, vegetarianism, and celibacy.

            Manichaeism spread throughout the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and Asia, but its followers were persecuted almost everywhere. Only in Central Asia could it be said to have actually flourished. It was eventually eclipsed by other religions and was extinct by the fifteenth century. Its influence on other religions and cultures, however, has been considerable.


Nomadic Invaders

In addition to being a haven for persecuted religious groups, the interior of Eurasia was also the point of origin for most of the nomadic invasions that threatened the medieval empires from Rome to China. Over much of that region, agriculture and thus any densely populated, sedentary civilization was not practical either because of the extreme cold or the lack of water. In the north, which was forested, hunting (including fishing) and gathering could sustain small clans of people scattered over a large area. The excess population from this region tended to move to the south, which consisted of vast open grasslands known as steppes.

            On the vast Eurasian steppes, grazing animals such as cattle, sheep, or goats could support somewhat larger populations. Life for the pastoralists of the steppes was still precarious, however, and not conducive to remaining in one place for long, as drought, disease, or raids could easily wipe out the flocks on which life depended. Security and prosperity depended on having as many animals as possible, and the greater the number of animals, the more land would be needed for feeding them.

            These ecological considerations were the determining factors in the two most obvious traits of all steppe cultures—nomadism, because of the need to move to more or better grazing lands; and superior military skills, because of the constant need to defend the animals and grazing lands against predators and rivals (or to capture them when needed for survival). They may also help explain another important aspect of steppe culture, the occasional tendency, especially in response to some crisis, for large numbers of pastoralists to band together in tribes or tribal confederations.

            As often as not, such a “tribe” would include people from diverse racial and ethnic origins, but who shared a common language and culture, and myths of descent from common ancestors. Despite their differences, strong charismatic leaders were often able to unite them in times of stress by emphasizing their commonalities – and the advantages of cooperation. By uniting under such strong leadership, they were better able to raid neighboring agrarian societies for the resources they needed or, more typically, to seize the pasture lands of rival tribes.

            Wave after wave of these great tribal movements have occurred throughout history, and they were particularly acute in the millennium from the third century, when the Huns began pushing the Goths across the Danube, to the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. The general tendency was for a tribal confederation to form north of the Ordos bend of the Yellow River, either in Manchuria or, more often, near the Orkhon river in what is now Mongolia. They would attempt to move south into China but if unsuccessful would move west across the steppe belt pushing previously established tribes further west towards the Middle East or Eastern Europe.

            Attempting to follow these nomadic migrations can be a bewildering exercise for many reasons. Historical sources are few and often confused or ill informed, and it is difficult to be certain of the exact identity of a nomadic group. Language and culture, not ethnicity or race, really defined the nomads, and these things could be borrowed or changed. It was not uncommon for defeated tribes to be absorbed by the victorious ones. There are cases where different names were applied to the same people at various times and in different places, and other instances when the same name was applied to quite different people. Thus it is still debated whether there was a connection between the Xiongnu who menaced Han China and the Huns who invaded Europe, or whether the Hephthalites (“White Huns”) who appeared on the borders of eastern Iran were an Indo-European or Turkic people and how they were connected to other invaders.

The Huns. In the time of the Sasanid and Byzantine empires, there were two steppe peoples of particular significance in giving rise to the host of “barbarian invasions” which those empires had to confront. The Huns were the first of these. They appeared in the area of the Caucasus and the Black Sea towards the end of the third century, defeating and absorbing into their coalition some of the existing tribal groups such as the Alans. By 375, they had forced the Germanic people known as the eastern and western Goths (Ostrogoths and Visigoths) from their homeland north of the Black Sea across the Danube. In 395, they raided as far south as Armenia and Syria. Under their ruler Attila (434-453), the Huns advanced into central Europe and threatened the city of Rome itself. The advance of the Huns was clearly responsible for setting off the massive migrations of people all over Europe known as the Völkerwanderungen. It is likely that the Chionites and Hephthalites who menaced eastern Iran and India in the fifth century were related to the same general movement of tribes as produced the Huns in Europe.

The Turks. The other great steppe people during this period were the Turks. Groups speaking Turkic languages had appeared all across Eurasia, perhaps as early as the first century. The first people clearly to call themselves Türk (“Strong”) were the Gök Türks (“Sky Turks”). They appear to have originated in the Altai Mountains where they controlled mines of iron ore that enabled them to manufacture and market metal implements.

            Around 552, under the leadership of Bumin, the Gök Türks defeated and destroyed the Juan-Juan tribal confederation, which had dominated them. The Turks thus took control of a steppe empire reaching from the Oxus River to Manchuria. Bumin died shortly thereafter, and the empire was split into two administrative divisions with the Eastern Turks under a kaghan, Bumin’s son Muhan, and the Western Turks under a yabghu, Bumin’s younger brother Ishtemi.

            The Western Turks allied with the Sasanids from 557-561 to crush the Hephthalites and divide their territory. They also established links with the Byzantines and participated in joint campaigns in the Caucasus in 627. However, after 582 the two halves of the Turkish Empire were also fighting with each other, enabling the Tang Chinese under the Emperor Taizong (627-649) to defeat both and annex most of their territory. The Turks recovered somewhat during the period 691-751, only to suffer further defeats at the hands of the Arabs.

            As the Turkish Empire disintegrated, however, its component groups moved off in various directions, and these Turkic tribes would continue to be of great importance. They included the Kirghiz and Uighurs in East Asia, the various Oghuz tribes in Central Asia and the Middle East, and the Khazars, Pechenegs, and Cumans in Eastern Europe.



Impact of the Nomadic Invasions

The historians of the sedentary societies who wrote about the nomadic peoples emphasized their “barbarism,” their predatory nature, and the aggressive aspects of their migrations. The role of the steppe nomads in history, however, involves much more than just conquest and destruction. Their attacks on the neighboring sedentary societies often occurred because of dire economic necessity or because they were provoked by outside meddling in their affairs.

            The Byzantines and the Sasanids, like the Chinese, did not hesitate to ally themselves with “barbarians” in order to attack a common enemy, and they sometimes deliberately involved such forces in their internal political affairs in order to gain the upper hand in a succession dispute or the like. Moreover, the nomads played a vital part in the economy of Eurasia. They supplied the sedentary societies with products such as felt or other animal products in exchange for items they could not produce for themselves. They also provided crucial transportation for the international trade of the times: The steppes were much like an open ocean; by unifying and pacifying them the nomads could facilitate the movement of good from one end of Eurasia to the other.

            Although the nomads did not have the same kind of institutions and literature as the settled peoples, they were hardly uncultured. Their oral poetry (especially epics), their colorful carpets, and their handicrafts were evidence of their own artistic abilities. Their skill at government, their concern for establishing systems of law and order, and their typical religious tolerance enabled them to hold together and administer vast amounts of territory. They took pride in their own culture, but they were also capable of admiring and emulating the achievements of the sedentary civilizations. By periodically tearing down such older societies and replacing them with newer, more vigorous ones that combined elements of “civilized” and “barbarian” culture, the nomads provided a critically important engine of historical change in pre-modern times.

[1] Paraphrased from Mas‘udi, Muruj al-Dhahab (edited by B. de Meynard and P. de Courteille, Paris, 1914), 2:206-7.

[2] Translated from the royal inscription edited in André Maricq, “Res Gestae Divi Saporis,” Syria 35(1958):295-360.

[3] Ammianus Marcellinus, History, 17.5.

[4] Mary Boyce (tr.), The Letter of Tansar (Rome, 1968), p. 52.

[5] Ibid, p. 44. Tansar further wrote (p. 48) that “the nobles are distinguished from the artisans and tradespeople by their dress and horses and trappings of pomp, and their women by silken garments; also by their lofty dwellings, their trousers, headgear, hunting and whatever else is customary for the noble.”

[6] Ibid, pp. 33-34.

[7] Quoted in Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London, 1979), p. 109.

[8] Mas‘udi, Muruj al-Dhahab, 2:210.

[9] 1 Peter 2:13.

[10] E. Sewter (tr.), Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (New York: Penguin, 1966), p. 59.

[11] Ibid, p. 155.

[12] Quoted in Alexander Vasiliev, The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860 (Cambridge, Mass.: 1946), p. 201.

[13] V. Minorsky (translator), Hudud al-‘Alam: “The Regions of the World,” a Persian Geography (London: 1970), p. 159

[14] Samuel Cross and Olgerd Sherbowitz-Wetzor (translators), The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text (Cambridge, Mass.: 1930), p. 59.

[15] The Epistle of Photius in J. P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus. Patres Graeca (Paris, 1860), 102:735-738, cited in Serge Zenkovsky, The Nikonian Chronicle (Princeton, 1984), p. lviii.